Hat Yai residents have learned the hard way - that prevention is not always better than a cure. The South's main commercial hub has been swamped by two disastrous floods within a span of 10 years.
A pickup truck is lifted above the floodwaters on a garage hoist. It was one of the few vehicles to escape damage from flash flooding in Hat Yai in the 2010 crisis. PATTARACHAI PREECHAPANICH
That's an occurrence too frequent for comfort, they believe, especially considering it should not have happened at all.
Back in 2000, the government took steps to mitigate floods and disaster impacts for the city, pouring nearly 3.6 billion baht into large infrastructure projects. The money went towards such things as water diversion channels and drainage systems, to floodwalls and levees.
However, it took another flood crisis in 2010 for the authorities to realise that despite the enormous budget spent on the city's defences, it was no more impregnable than before.
The 2010 flood caused even more damage than a decade earlier.
It became clear that something was missing, something that would improve rather than worsen the situation.
There was no effective flood warning system in place and effective coordination between authorities and local administration was lacking. A dearth of equipment to respond to emergencies was also apparent.
Most worrying for city planners has been intensified urbanisation and growth in the local economy and population, spurring deep transformations in the organisation of Hat Yai's waterways and floodplains.
As with most flood-prone cities, the nature of flooding and its relationship with drainage systems has become increasingly difficult to fathom amid improper land conversion projects and unregulated changes in land use.
Efforts have been made to look beyond local government mitigation steps as Hat Yai stakeholders look to take matters into their own hands.
A group of residents and others - consisting of municipal officials, government officials, NGOs, academics and the private/business sector - have gathered under the auspices of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), an initiative funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, to develop an approach to local flood issues.
Instead of focusing on mitigation, these Hat Yai residents have turned to developing city-wide climate resilience strategies.
To begin with, the group conducted a city vulnerability assessment, prioritised community needs and planned and developed a city resilience strategy.
Working at the grassroots level and with the urban poor living in flood-prone areas, they have identified priorities to tackle in case a flood hits and village-specific action plans.
The group has also established a website, http://www.hatyaicityclimate.org, to provide public access to information, showcasing real-time flood monitoring at strategic locations in Hat Yai. Anyone can access the website using their mobile phones.
Building resilience at the city-wide level is a process that requires both mitigation of impacts and adaptation to changes.
In the case of Hat Yai, the bottom-up approach is to strengthen the capacity of local communities while the top-down approach is to ensure scientific knowledge-informed policy planning, coordinating across sectors and scales, and implementing integrated plans.
Hat Yai is about to begin the implementation of an intervention project that addresses key city-wide flood risk reduction issues - community-based capacity building, updating flood models, integrating climate change and urban development scenarios into flood plans and establishing a functioning coordination and learning centre.
Hat Yai's two-year resilience strategy is critical to addressing key issues in flood risk reduction through coordination and collaboration, said Somporn Siriporananon, vice president of Songkhla Chamber of Commerce.
"But everything needs to be scaled up to achieve not only city-wide but river basin-level urban climate resilience," he said.
The Hat Yai stakeholder group is now working on the flood resilience projects and is reaching out to schools and businesses to educate them on flood-related issues.
And to address inadequate coordination across relevant authorities and sectors, the group has launched the "Hat Yai City Climate Change Resilience Learning Centre", an entity that will act as a coordinator to share knowledge on flood-related issues.
The group also plans to promote knowledge on current and future shifts in the urban landscape and to improve the city's early warning flood system by updating flood models based on new information related to the weather and city developments.
Word of Hat Yai's flood resilience approach has spread to Phuket which suffered millions of baht in damage after two days of flooding paralysed business in August.
Like Hat Yai, the resort province has also come to terms with the reality that there can never be an end to flood problems.
The province is seeking state funds to construct flood protection embankments at strategic waterway locations to prevent water from entering key areas.
However, experts feel it could be a futile exercise.
Phuket has been selected as a pilot city to implement M-BRACE, an urban climate resilience initiative funded by USAID, implemented in Thailand and Vietnam.
Researchers and city stakeholders have begun climate vulnerability assessments in urban areas, focusing on land use and water resources.
The findings about climate vulnerability will contribute to the resilience strategy plan for Phuket.
While heavy rainfall may lead to flooding, the root causes of flooding in many cities stem from unregulated urban land use, rapid urbanisation, construction in flood plains and encroachment of waterways caused by lax city law enforcement. Thailand, meanwhile, has no clear urban development framework.
Through decentralisation, city municipalities are faced with increasing responsibilities - from city administration, management, development, to dealing with natural disasters, and the need to enhance human resources, finances, technical skills and knowledge.
A resident cleans her shophouse in the aftermath of the 2010 flood in Hat Yai city centre. TAWATCHAI KEMGUMNERD
Young students in Hat Yai participate in a recent drill involving the evacuation of residents before floods hit the area. NIC DUNLOP
Pakamas Thinphanga is a Bangkok-based senior researcher with the Thailand Environment Institute (TEI) and also oversees climate change adaptation projects under the auspices of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), which is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.
About the author
Writer: Pakamas Thinphanga